The key to developing your heeling is position. That’s pretty much the most important thing about heeling. I track the sled out of the box every time. Very seldom do I rope it while tracking it around the arena. I want to get in the box as soon as I can on a horse because I want my pattern leaving the box and getting into the left lead. If you can’t do it on the Heel-O-Matic leaving the box, you can’t do it tracking a steer.
I make the sled go left like the steer is going left, and I work on my position around the corner. I like to stay six to eight feet wide, with my horse riding around the corner without cutting in or getting to the inside too much or not too far behind it so you can’t see both legs. It’s all about reading it. I can’t say apply this amount of pressure or that amount to your reins—you’ve got to read your corner and work on how best to control your horse to keep him in position. You can slow it down and figure out what it takes to keep that right distance around the corner. This will help you read when to pick up on your reins and give it back. That’s also good for your horse to slow it down and get him in the perfect spot every time.
You can make the sled go to the right and move your horse over, too, which is a scenario not enough young kids get to practice. Ensure that your horse is in the left lead even if he’s going to the right. If he’s in the right lead, he’s got to switch and drop his shoulder to make it around the corner, and that will put you in a bad spot and throw off your timing. Keeping your horse away from the dummy if the steer goes to the right can be one of the hardest things, because when that steer turns you’re too close. Being able to pick your horse up and move him while maintaining distance from the steer and the left lead is essential, and coming out of the box behind the Heel-O-Matic is a great way to perfect this.
The sled is great for getting everything in time—your swing, your horse’s stride and the steer’s feet. You have to get in the right rhythm to throw your rope. Placing your loop at the right time is key. It’s all about the feet, the horse and the swing. It’s just as the feet are starting forward, so the feet catch your loop right then. This might mean you’ve got to work on it slow for a long time to get it all together. But going at different speeds, and going left and right and changing everything up can help you perfect your timing in every sort of scenario. I will even practice the sled turning fast right in front of the chute. I don’t just do one drill all the time—I change it up to where I’m sharp on everything to work on all of those types of runs.
Another thing that’s good for kids as far as the Heel-O-Matic is working on your dallying and staying in control of it so it’s not dangerous. I was 9 years old and I got myself caught in my dally. We didn’t have sleds like we have now. It’s really good to work on where the rope is in your hands and how to manage your slack and your rope sliding.
I rope the Hox at the trailer before I compete sometimes—it’s like practicing shooting a basket before a basketball game. It’s muscle memory at that point—as long as you understand how your loop is supposed to work, that is what counts. A lot of time, people rope the dummy and quickly grab their slack and pull it up. I like to throw my rope and leave it down there. I don’t like to pick it up before it gets to the feet. You’ve got to stay with your delivery and let your loop do the work so it’s a big open loop.
Travis Gravesis a father to two great kids—son Tee and daughter True. He teaches private lessons and clinics at his home in Morgan Mill, Texas, and can be reached through Facebook messaging.